Welcome to the next installment of our adventures in Le Shack on October 16th 2020.
We met the neighbours today. It didn’t go particularly well.
We only have one neighbour. Their entrance is the opposite side to ours, across a tiny lane that leads up to our two properties and then stops dead in the face of a wall of brambles that could have come straight out of Sleeping Beauty. No prince in his right mind would have tried to cut his way through that lot. Unfortunately, that little slice of hostile territory belongs to us and is the only way for us to gain access to our woods. We are the proud owners of a strimmer now, so perhaps Michael will have a go later this week.
We had wondered what our neighbours would be like. First impressions of their house weren’t encouraging. A rusty old fridge sat out by the road, surrounded by a stack of rotting pallets. Two ancient white vans that hadn’t enjoyed the freedom of the road for many years were half buried in the weeds, along with various bits of scrap and rubbish. The house itself was hidden behind high walls and we had not seen sight of who lived there since we moved in.
I came out one morning to find a man unloading shopping from inside a third white van and took the opportunity to introduce myself.
There was a grunt as he backed out of the van and stared at me in surprise.
‘Bonjour’. I tried again. ‘We’ve just moved in. We’re your new neighbours.’
‘Là-bas?’ He nodded towards the cabin, hidden behind the trees.
‘Yes. Just two days ago.’
His face fell.
‘You buy or you rent?’
‘We’ve bought it.’
His face fell even further.
I was taken aback. This wasn’t a typical response from our experience of French people and I couldn’t think what we had done in the few days we had been here to displease him so. I soon found out that we weren’t the problem.
‘The woman who lived here before was not a good person. We didn’t get on. We were like this.’ He pushed the knuckles of both hands together to illustrate his point. ‘She parked her car there,’ he glared at our van, ‘so I couldn’t turn my van round to get out of my drive. I had to back all the way down the lane. And she had lots of visitors. Little parties. Five or six cars, even parking in my drive.’ He stabbed a finger towards his rubbish-filled drive and I wondered how anyone could fit even one more car in there, let alone five or six. ‘We live here for le tranquillité, pour être dans la nature. Not for parties.’
He paused for breath and I assured him that we also loved the peace and quiet, that we didn’t intend to have wild parties and that we hoped that we could be good neighbours. But there was more to come. She had built this cabin, much to his disgust, without planning permission. We knew this because it had come up in the legal searches on the property. Luckily for us, the local mairie had eventually caught up with her and suggested it was time to play by the rules so she had obtained retrospective planning permission. It seemed that she had done all manner of other things that were outside of the rules and which had incensed him over the years. An image flashed into my mind of a lady in her late sixties, a backwoods pioneer determined to live her life as she wanted, who liked to party and flouted the rules with typical French insouciance. I wished that I could have met her and heard her side of the story.
Michael, hearing our voices, had come out to join us. He received a brief nod by way of a welcome and the tirade changed track.
‘Attention à les manouches. C’est un problème catastrophique en France.’
He was referring to the gypsy population. Apparently they would drive around the countryside looking for scrap metal and opportunities for thieving. They had come to visit him, and he’d told them to go away in no uncertain terms. The situation had turned nasty, to the point where he had gone back inside his house to retrieve his gun.
‘You have a gun?’ I squeaked.
‘Mais oui, naturellement.’
The gun had done the trick and they had disappeared in a flurry of dire threats of violence and squealing wheels.
I thought the conversation was over but he had one parting shot to make. He leaned in closer, rolled his eyes up towards the hill behind us.
‘There are snakes. Les serpents. For the next few months, many snakes. Be careful.’
And with that he disappeared back inside his van again.
We closed our gate behind us and looked at each other.
‘That didn’t go so well.’
‘He’ll come round.’ I hoped I sounded more convinced that I felt. ‘He just needs time to get used to us being here. And I expect the gypsies turned up once five years ago and it’s just one of those stories people like to tell.’
We forgot all about the gypsies until two days later when a couple of young lads in an unmarked white van turned up. They were pleasant enough, asking if we had any scrap to sell, but you couldn’t help but notice how their eyes flickered around the sheds, watchful and assessing. They left with no trouble and, as our neighbour was out at the time, there were no further opportunities for a confrontation.
We have very few possessions of any financial value, but those that we do have, primarily our solar panels and our generator, have a value which goes beyond money. They are our lifeline, our own personal power grid, without which winter would be dire indeed. It seems that there is more than one type of snake in our rural Paradise. We shall need to take more care.
On to more cheerful matters and here are a few photos of what we have been getting up to this week.
Michael did indeed get to grips with our bramble wilderness. You can see from the pictures below that he has cut a path through so that we can at least reach our woods. You can also see why he won’t be doing any more than just that narrow path. We’ll leave it to the wildlife.
I’ve found an old wooden bookcase in the shed. It was in a sorry state, the shelves twisted and sloping and the base rotted away but in the spirit of make-do-and-mend Michael has cut off the rotten bits, straightened the shelves, put a new back on it and I have painted it. You can’t have a home without a few books and ornaments in it!
Below you can see what I am calling our control panel for our off-grid system. A work in progress, but it’s coming together. We have literally just taken delivery of some key components so I am fervently hoping that candles and head-torches for cooking and reading will be a thing of the past by next week.
And lastly, here’s some evening sunshine on our oak trees for you.
Take care and see you next week.